Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Pot au feu - Comfort in the madness

First published Canberra Times Wednesday 6 July 2011.
With our Alsatian adventure over, and a gruelling but uneventful flight behind us, we are relieved to be aboard our little plane at Sydney airport ready to make the final hop home to Canberra. I settle back into my seat, daydreaming of fresh baguette, pungent cheese and a succulent duck breast bought from our local boulangerie, fromagerie and boucherie. Sadly, when we get home, we will make do with the bread, cheese and probably even the meat from the local supermarket, with a proper trip to the market later in the week. After our amazing food experience in France, it is now difficult to resume life as we once knew it.

Our exhausted relief is punctured by an announcement. “Apologies for the delay. There’s a problem with the plane’s navigation system”. Before we know it, we are all offloaded to await news on the repairs. After a couple of hours watching the TV screen as it cycles through news repeats between bouts of dozing, we are told that the plane is too broken and the flight is cancelled. All other flights are full and we need to make alternative travel arrangements. My patience has reached near shattering point, and I use my remaining reserves to hire a car to drive the final leg home. Exiting the airport carpark, a strange sense of déjà vu emerges, as we take off on the right-hand side of the road. Oops.

There are many myths about jet lag, and more cures than you can poke a stick at. My theory is that the older I get, the more I feel the extent of its impact and I rely more and more on the restorative powers of food. To assist our body-clocks to deal with this change and return to their home circadian rhythms, I make a soothing Pot-au-feu. (literally “pot of fire”). Somehow I get the feeling this will not be an easy transition and my rhythms will remain firmly glued to the warm days and the haute cuisine of France, strongly resisting the cold winter realities of Canberra. If the goodness of Pot-au-feu can’t massage them back into place, nothing can.

Throughout France, there are many regional versions of Pot-au-feu, including coastal and inland variations. The thing that remains constant is that the soup is always served in two parts; the broth served first and the boiled meats and vegetables served afterwards. 

The origins of this dish go back to medieval France where serfs and peasants, as a matter of survival, had to take what they produced in the fruitful times and turn it into food that could sustain them through the lean times of the year. This involved preserving and processing food to ensure it would last out the long, and often harsh European winters.

Imagine that your kitchen has an earthenware pot permanently simmering on the stove, filled with stock, meat and vegetables. This is replenished as it is used and the pot is only cleaned out in readiness for the meatless weeks of Lent. The stock is served as a first course, then the boiled meats and accompanying vegetables as the second course. The meat trimmings and leftovers are added back to the stockpot to be reused in other dishes, enriching the stock. This soup never tastes the same twice and ends up a genuine party in a pot. This was also where soup as a starter or entree made its entry into gastronomic history.

For recuperative purposes, I make a meatless Pot-au-feu, but with a base of home-made chicken stock. I use a mixture of fresh, seasonal vegetables, and include my new-found addiction acquired in France - broad beans. They are a bit of work to prepare, as they need to be blanched to remove the outer skin, but well worth the effort for their beautiful, nutty flavour and bright green colour. Broad beans are a winter vegetable and can be picked right through till spring. A stalk of fresh lemongrass provides a citrusy overtone that works really well with the vegetables. In contrast to our poor serfs and peasants, I only cook my vegetables until just tender so they still retain their crunch.  It is topped with finely shaved truffle, which truly works wonders on the egg, a comforting Provencal addition to each bowl. The fresh herb basil and parsley coulis adds a touch of spring to this winter soup.

Julia Child suggests that when you make Pot-au-feu and you include a variety of meats, to ensure each piece receives the right amount of cooking, you should tie a string to each one and lift it out to see if it’s cooked! I can imagine the reactions from my family, as they watch me hauling out a chicken or a pig’s foot tied to the end of a piece of string from what is to be their dinner. Serve with lots of crunchy bread spread with plenty of unsalted butter to sop up the broth.
Serves 4
3 tbsp olive oil
3 garlic cloves
1 onion, thinly sliced
2 leeks, white part only, cut into 4 cm lengths
Salt and white pepper to taste
3 large potatoes, peeled and thickly sliced
4 carrots, peeled and cut into 4 centimetre lengths
3 cups of chicken stock
1 stick of lemongrass, bashed and split
2 slices of thin orange peel, zest only
6 sliced radish, optional
1 bunch of asparagus, tender parts only chopped into 4 cm lengths
4 large shitake mushrooms, sliced thickly
300g baby spinach leaves
4 large poached eggs
couple of handfuls of fresh basil and parsley
¼ cup of extra virgin olive oil, extra
pinch of salt
shaved truffle, optional

To make the herb coulis, use a stick blender to whizz the basil, parsley and ¼ cup of extra virgin olive oil together with a pinch of sea salt.

In a large frypan warm the olive oil over medium heat. Toss in the garlic, cook for a minute. Add the leek and onion and shake around, Season with salt and pepper. Cook the leek and onion for about 5 minutes. Stir in the potatoes, carrots, stock, lemongrass and orange peel. Bring to the boil and lower heat to a gentle simmer. 

Cook uncovered until the vegetables are just cooked, but not yet tender, this should take about 10 minutes.
While the vegetables are simmering bring an additional frypan of water to a simmer and slip 4 eggs into the water to poach for a couple of minutes until just cooked.

Take the vegetables off the heat, and in the last couple of moments before serving, add the mushrooms, asparagus, baby spinach and radish to the broth to wilt and just warm through.

Ladle the Pot-au-feu into 4 large bowls, top each with a softly poached egg and an optional slice of truffle, a drizzle of herb coulis and serve immediately.